Artist and writer Laura Grace Ford wrote a short story especially for the workshop. This was read and discussed by the group.
NOTES FOR A SPECTRAL DRIFT. A STORY.
Her Mum’s house in Redruth, with its montbretia and patio paving, was at odds with Kay’s outgrown mohawk, the wood smoke smell of her clothes. We’d slept in her old bedroom, where the pony wallpaper she’d insisted on at ten was hidden under a palimpsest of club flyers. I’d met her at a Spiral Tribe party in Twyford Down. It was 1993, a strange, crepuscular year and she’d asked me to come with her to Cornwall.
Cornwall. When she’d suggested it there’d been nothing tangible to hold onto: a slideshow of saturated images: hydrangeas and palm trees, sand the colour of vanilla ice cream. The last time was 1980. Falmouth had appeared like a miracle after the long, long journey from Yorkshire: lush and foreign, an explosion of unknown flora. The tower blocks of Bradford had been blinking awake when we left, and after hours of hypnagogic services and dim stretches of moorland, a hotel had loomed, pink and stately in hot, tropical gardens.
Kay had been obsessed with music, and the tracks she made were mesmerising and haunting, the kind that made your hairs stand on end. Her improvised studio was a place of shape-shifting sorcery, a place to shake the identities imposed by a small town. Syncopation lurched like an arrhythmic heart beat, and her voice (pitch-shifted and unrecognisable) was coaxed into strange, unexpected melodies. I was sure there was an audience waiting for her, but she was suspicious of the music industry, protective of the tracks, as if they were too young, too unformed to be out in the world alone.
It was Flora Day in Helston, and the town was decked in newly greened elm and alder. The heat had come suddenly and a rowdy licentiousness was spilling from tavern doorways. It reminded me of Yorkshire, the orgiastic supping in market squares, the same feeling of immersion. We’d woken to a morning clatter, circles of hokey cokey rambunctiousness, and as we’d wandered bleary eyed from her mate’s cottage we were slapped with a stink of pheromones.
The Green Man had multiplied and I remember the malign virility, the bodies festooned with ivy. In pubs, we’d been waylaid by mobile, drunken trees who’d shed leaves as they’d lifted pints of bright orange cider. In those little rooms with their low beams and keeling floors it was like thrashing through dense thickets, losing yourself in the woods. But the aftermath was the ineradicable part, the discarded branches and crushed wreaths, a festival in a field somewhere, chlorophyll burns on hungover skin.
Hal-An-Tow was less spectacle than carnival, and I wondered now if its Dionysian character had survived the age of TikTok. The ritual had tap roots in the counter worship of Brig, the triple faced deity, and seemed resolutely pagan against the Rotary Club officialdom of the main parade where the great and the good swirled in morning suits and mother of the bride dresses. We stood back as they snaked through the town, Kay commenting acerbically on the overbearing energy of a trussed up local councillor.
The Furry Dance tune struck me because it had insinuated itself into my childhood, the Brighouse and Rastrick brass band at number one in 1977 with what, by then, had been renamed the Floral Dance. I’d never considered that the galumphing tune with its baroque twists and turns might hail from anywhere other than the textile towns of the North.
The ancient Kingdom of Brigantia hovered indelibly over West Yorkshire. While the rest of the country was being carved up by Angles and Saxons, the Celts had flourished on its moors and highlands. And because Brighouse was where my family had worked in the dye works and mills, hearing the tune in Cornwall was like seeing home through the wrong end of a telescope.
A REALIGNED MAP.
After that, I went North and resumed a life there, and it wasn’t until 2022 that I was back in Cornwall again, this time under the pretext of an academic collaboration (I was an assistant archivist, overseeing collections on industrial heritage, something I’d fallen into in the half awake mess of my modern history degree ) and Kay had come immediately to mind, the desire to see her bordering on infatuation.
A quick image search revealed that she was working at a care home in Cambourne. I’d scrolled through Instagrammers with glossy pouts, a panoply of women who shared her name, then there she was, glass of prosecco in hand, radiating a sleepy pleasure that looked almost post-coital. The memory of our closeness jolted through me, I’d have known those eyes anywhere: mineral green, dazzling on the upswell of her second drink. The sudden proximity was shaming, I couldn’t think why I hadn’t tried to find her before. How would she feel about being contacted after all this time, would she even remember me? Cornwall was a world away from the rapidly developing Manchester I’d built a life in. When I thought of Redruth, of Cornwall altogether, I thought of it as another dimension, another country, which of course, it was.
I began by apologising for emailing out of the blue. The mature tone felt vaguely insincere, but she had a responsible job now and I didn’t want her to think I hadn’t grown up. And yet, the moment I began typing, the urge to introduce our drug fuelled lexicon was irresistible. She’d been my best mate, we’d been inseparable for a while, it was inevitable we’d have our own language.
She might not work there anymore, the website might be out of date, and even if she saw my email she was bound to be busy with her current life. All these things swirled around in the limbo of those blanked out years. But in less than an hour, her reply, dashed out on a phone, was an amalgam of in-jokes and terms we’d invented. She’d be in town the week I was visiting and couldn’t wait to see me.
In March I drove all the way to Redruth. I was aware, from googling the route, fixing up my accommodation, that it was St Piran’s day, a black and white burst of nationalism. I could have got the train, it would have been easier, but there was something appealing about a road trip just then. Things had been difficult with my boyfriend, I’d just taken the lease on a new flat, and although we were nominally still together it was clear that the move would be the end of us. For a while I’d been bored in the relationship, listlessly going through the motions, and the road, with its melancholy stops in Roadchefs and Motos seemed fitting just then.
The day was drizzly and overcast and I’d packed the car with a nervy excitement. In the boot was a suitcase of clothes ( nicely pressed, some expensive) that I knew on some level wouldn’t be right in Cornwall. I remembered the sun bleached hair, the cut off t-shirts and flip flops, how everyone had dressed for the beach.
Kay’s profile photo was a psychedelic fractal pattern. We’d been messaging on WhatsApp and she’d invited me to stay at hers, but I knew she was caring for her mum, that her grown up son was at home, and decided she had enough to deal with.
On the M6 I’d listened to a particular strain of electronic music hydroponically grown in Cornwall. When I’d put the playlist together in my apartment in the Northern Quarter, the THC infused tracks had seemed out-of -joint, but as the temporalities of the south west began to assert themselves, they started to make sense.
When I reached the A30 at Exeter, the afternoon light was already waning, and I knew I needed to stay focused if I wanted to get to Redruth before dark. Dartmoor brooded ahead of me, black like the Pennines, intimidating me the way Saddleworth and Emley had.
Settlement after settlement came at me on the penumbral dual carriageway. The rain had eased and the last of the afternoon sunshine was ambering the laybys. Beyond them, chimney stacks, mines crumbling like sacked churches. I would be going there with the researchers, two mordant men with laminated OS maps. We would talk about the loss of industry, the mass emigration from Cornwall, and they’d log our excursions on double spaced word docs.
Carn Brea was a beacon signalling my departure from the A30 and my first view of Redruth was a bleak interchange of Costas and KFC’s. Kay lived on an estate where every house looked like hers, grey pebbledash, grey roofs, and sometimes a wind bashed palm tree, a trampoline about to take off.
Ramps and railings clung to the house. The front yard was paved now (easier to look after) but the montbretia had survived, and I remembered how the first time I’d come here (sleep deprived and hungover) those orange flowers had seemed otherworldly.
Kay bounded out to greet me. And despite everything I’d learned in those clipped, fragmented texts, the vitality I remembered was still there. She held me tight in the scents of almond oil and Amberleaf tobacco, the year we met imprinted in them, and asked with a carer’s off hand briskness if I needed to use the bathroom.
A celtic cross loomed across the car park. Next to it was the Druid’s Hall which Kay told me had been firebombed in 1984. Her clothes spoke determinedly of the scene: combat trousers, oversized trainers, khaki bomber jacket. In my cigarette cut jeans and boxy cropped jacket I knew I’d made myself alien. And as townsfolk milled around with bare, sun damaged skin, I was starkly aware that the make up I’d applied in Manchester looked overdone and beckoning here.
Kay said I looked good though, held me at arm’s length and said how little I’d changed. And whether it was true or not, I could see in her eyes that my appearance hadn’t shocked her, and that was enough just then.
Her accent was heavily imbricated with Kernow, and I remembered how the townsfolk had talked in a way that seemed deliberately impenetrable. My outsider status was less marked because I was with her, but even then, regulars would fall into back turned muttering the moment we walked in the pub.
The Oxford’s character had been stripped out in a succession of refits, its over lit rooms shivering in utilitarian blandness. A few punters were huddled at the bar drinking fruit infused ciders. She ordered red wine, reminding me of the Spingo we drank back then. ‘Remember that pub in Helston’ she said, ‘The Blue Anchor?’ I told her I did. It wasn’t the kind of place you’d forget. Keeling flagstone floors, revellers draped in woodland greenery. When I told her Hal-An-Tow had come to me in dreams, she’d glanced at me sharply, checking for sarcasm, and I imagined the banter in the staff room, the quips she’d be forced to endure at work.
But this place, The Oxford, I had no recollection at all. She nudged me with descriptions of dirty pool rooms, blokes dealing shrooms over the baize, but it remained stubbornly out of reach.. A melancholic playlist was tendrilling from the speakers- Phil Collins, Level 42- tracks from the ’80s that everyone kind of knew. There was something incongruous about them in that pub, something high handed and blind. It was the overproduction I realised, the way the cracks and breaks were rendered invisible, whereas in Cornwall, that’s all there was.
Kay had shared her deep sense of connectedness to the land, taking me to burial mounds, quoits and stone circles. We’d tramped for miles through springy heathers, usually after raves, when the moors were mauve and celestial. Cornwall was ingrained in her, as the Pennines were in me, and the ruggedness of the land, the wildness of the moors aligned us somehow, brought us together.
She dismissed political parties like Kernow Mebyon in favour of another group, described variously in the press as fringe or extremist. She stopped short of saying the name, but in the space where it was supposed to be I heard it, loaded and cocked in the sad drifts of Genesis.
An Gof. It had been spray painted on walls and rock faces as we’d travelled around in the ’90s, and the words had recurred silently, ominously with an undeniable frisson. ‘Better we say ‘the smith’, she said, ‘more sly in English’, which she supposed in a way was ironic.
ENGLISH OUT. FREE CORNWALL.
I sensed Kay rarely got a chance to talk about her life, because at first she seemed unmoored by the space I gave her, rushing to compress information as if someone was elbowing in.
She asked if I remembered Owen, and of course I did, because he’d been a prominent figure then, hosting parties at a semi-derelict villa in Clinton Road. The house had been a carousel of drifters, a nest of improvised studios: liberty caps painted on walls, a pervasive smell of Nag Champa, rooms that never saw daylight. But most of all I remembered the way Owen had looked at me the first time I went round, how bad it made me feel for Kay, seeing in that moment his faithlessness.
When she’d met him at sixth form he’d lived with his parents in Plain-An-Gwarry, an area she’d always considered posh, realising now that these things were relative. She knew they regarded her as a distraction, a crush before university. They were almost welcoming, which in a sense made it worse, because there was nothing palpable to complain about, but she knew from the way his mum smirked at her accent and asked her to repeat words that she was no higher in their eyes than a performing dog.
Kay described their house as hippyishness but polite: Indian fabrics, photographs of dolmen, charcoal landscapes in frames. In the seventies, remote rural areas had enticed (mostly bohemian, mostly middle class) city dwellers shaken by TV programmes like Threads. They’d dressed like members of Fairport Convention and bought tumbledown houses with plans to write poetry and paint. Owen’s parents were like this, school teachers from London, liberal and artistic, who’d decided that their two boys would be better off in Cornwall.
Owen’s room was a scrapyard of cameras and circuit boards, and they’d lie on his rumpled bed when his mum and dad were at work. He was the first boy she’d felt a connection with, the first to understand how a track could make her feel, ‘we were on the same wavelength’ she said, ‘I never had to water stuff down’. In her own room she’d been making tape loops and listening to Cabaret Voltaire, the sonics of post-industrial Sheffield making sense to her. By stealth she’d been recording her own music, ( squidgy 303s, unearthly drones, a distinct, chongy sound, ) and shared it tentatively with him. And in return he’d made her darkly psychedelic mixtapes: King Crimson, Voivod and Gong.
But when I asked if she was still making music it was like a portcullis crashing down. She said it was just a hobby, something to kill time when she couldn’t sleep.
Owen had been ambivalent when she’d told him she was pregnant, puzzling over it like a sequencing riddle. But when the baby was born he’d been to visit, and Kay was surprised by his interest, how mesmerised he’d been by the baby. For a week he’d called at the house in North Street, sitting hushed and reverent beside her, and Kay realised he’d seen what everyone else had, that the boy was his exact copy. On his last visit, his mum and dad had come with him, watching the baby with a studied curiosity as though looking at an exhibit in a museum, and she knew they were assessing for her genetic influence, checking to see if he was redeemable.
Left to himself Owen would have stayed, she thought, based himself in Cornwall and made his films there. He’d wanted to go to art school in Dartington but his parents had got in the way and set him up in London. His docility in the face of their intervention confirmed Kay’s suspicions, he was weak, unable to break free of their influence. Maybe he finished the University course, maybe he didn’t, but it was the beginning of a new life for him.
When it became clear that H’s differences couldn’t be glanced over, Owen’s parents had distanced themselves altogether, and although he was remembered at Christmas and birthdays his development was left to Kay to observe. Already her mum had exited into a realm of bag rummaging confusion, and whatever milestones H missed, whatever stumbling steps he failed to make, there was no one for Kay to talk to. And so she’d stayed in North Street with its cigarettes and soaps while everyone else (me included) had disappeared to forge the next phase of their lives.
PRECIOUS METALS, MINERAL WEALTH
We’d had three glasses of red and were flushed and unsteady when we got up to leave. The pub, though still quiet, was tangibly vexed: a grumbling discontent at the bar, the sound of chairs tipping in the beer garden.
She’d asked me to hers for a nightcap. She’d have to help her mum to bed and see H was on an even keel, but if I didn’t mind waiting we could have the Duty Free gin she’d been gifted at the care home. Contraband washed up around here all the time: bottles with foreign labels, cigarette cartons with not for resale printed on them, and when the relative handed over the gin for the ‘nice way’ she’d handled his mother’s death, it was just one of those things.
Roads forked out of the town centre, and I felt the gradients in my calves, muscle memories of Brighouse and Rastrick. Ramshackle villas listed into the road and I wondered which one had been the party house. Apparently it was the next street over, a hive of smackheads now, ‘a sour smelling bedlam’, where chalk white figures limped on crutches.
We were above the town and the drink was doing something to the stone terraces, melting them a little, putting them in the wrong order. The jumble of rooftops, the nests of yards had a disorienting effect, and I couldn’t work out if I’d been there before.
Brackish sea, a sobering blast of ozone, coconut wafts of gorse. It was much colder up here. Close Hill was a circuit of treeless avenues, and if she’d disappeared then I’d have been lost in the cul-de-sacs of grey houses.
At North Street, the television flickered like a magic lantern through the front window. Kay’s mum barely glanced from the screen when we walked into the fug of eye stinging smoke. She was reintroduced as Carol, and I stepped forward to greet her, hoping (weakly) for a smile of recognition, but my presence barely registered.
The lounge was brighter than I remembered, with stark white walls and spotlights on the ceiling. Everywhere you looked were trappings of advanced age: a digital clock with grotesquely enlarged numbers, a pulley hanging from the ceiling, a calendar with giant print. Kay eased her mum into a standing position and manoeuvred her into a walking frame. As the old lady shuffled past in pink slippers, Kay followed behind in a stunted parody of the conga.
Kay’s son was moving around in the kitchen, I could hear the fridge door opening and shutting, the intermittent pings of the microwave. I turned my phone face down, deciding not to read the messages from my (ex-) boyfriend, and thought instead of the metals inside it, the same ones glinting in the ground here: copper, beryllium and tungsten. Redruth was ravaged, its shop fronts blighted, and I wondered why there couldn’t be extraction again.
And as I was considering this a hulking man launched himself into Carol’s armchair with the velocity of a thirteen year old boy. He looked somewhere to the side of my head and said ‘Hello, how are you’, in a monotone voice then turned to face the TV. Reflected in his large eyes was the 1970s talk show Carol had been watching, an episode of Parkinson on mute.
This was H, something uncanny about his face, something alluring but off-key, and of course, shadowing him was the lean and good-looking Owen; it was a shock seeing him brought to life in someone else. It was like looking at a fun house mirror, a distorted but unmistakable reflection. Owen had been handsome (grey eyes, Roman nose, thick black hair) but in H his looks had become rubbery and elasticised as if someone had re-made him in latex.
It had taken all my strength to resist him back then, I could have totally immersed myself if things had been different. An electrical charge buzzed whenever he came near, and I remember thinking I need to divert this, find someone else before it blows up. I liked to think it was my loyalty to Kay that stopped me, but honestly, I think it had more to do with his false heartedness ( I was too proud to be used. )And now, seeing how Kay’s life was panning out, I was overawed by the sense of a parallel world materialising in front of me.
When Kay reappeared, frazzled and apologising twenty minutes later, she poured two gins in the miasmas of H’s microwave korma and invited me to what she called her private lounge.
I followed her up narrow, carpeted stairs, gin sloshing in its heavy tumbler. Her ‘lounge’ was actually a beguiling den, an ad hoc recording studio. Mandalas rippled outwards, circles of colour which, in my sleep deprived eyes, had begun to undulate.
I thought about Owen, the father of the boy who couldn’t make eye contact, he was probably in London, making films in expensive studios, hadn’t she ever wanted to find him? She said she’d never tried, because he belonged to a past she’d relinquished, and none of it mattered now, because everything was in flux, life was a perpetually turning wheel. Her platitudes had the ring of a new age message board, and I wondered when she’d learned to dismiss things this way, hand her agency to the universe. But it occured to me later that maybe she’d meant something vengeful and karmic, that she’d entrusted its execution to a higher force.
She was hovering at the edge of her studio, ice clinking in her gin and tonic, about to play something she’d been working on. This was a rare moment for her, usually the tracks were kept without audience, sealed and contained in egg box walls. But the drinks had emboldened her, and now she was crawling under a mixing desk, switching on wall sockets.
The music she’d made back then had haunted me, samples manipulated into eerie melodies, timbres that spoke of Cornwall’s troubled psyche. This piece, Deptford, had come to her in a dream. She’d woken up knowing how to write it, felt the arrangements washing through her. It was about a Cornish rebellion in 1497 when 15000 had marched on London in revolt against a new tax. I was seized by its momentum, its hypnotic qualities. It delineated the journey in stages, the mustering in Bodmin the long trek across the moors, the collective move into unknown terrain. Her capacity to tell a story with no words had set up a space of power and potency. She’d made the song a vehicle, a method of transportation and I realised that in doing this, she was describing not just 1497, but every uprising before or since.
When I left, the night was quartz cold, and I was glad of its imperviousness, its total indifference. Kay’s intensity was like the mine shafts that opened in gardens around here, an unguarded chasm, and the sound of adits reverberating hundreds of feet below gently menaced the walk back to the hotel.